Coconut Chicken Soup

Story by Holly
Coconut Chicken Soup
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We all have a handful meals that have a made a lasting impression on us— because of who we shared them with, or where we were when we first tasted them—and Tom Kha Gai, a Thai coconut chicken soup, is one of those dishes for me. 

I first tasted this piquant soup from a little joint in Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle. I was a young nanny at the time, and there was a lot I had yet to discover in the food world. I am grateful to the family I was working for who played a large part in opening my eyes to the wonders of Thai food, and this soup specifically. 

It is the first dish I remember really craving. There is something divine about the way the vivid, bold flavors of this creamy Thai coconut chicken soup mingle together, and it's also a wonderful excuse to get out of your comfort zone and try some ingredients you might not be familiar with.

Coconut Chicken Soup
Coconut Chicken Soup

What is Tom Kha Gai?

In short, it’s a creamy, coconut chicken soup, imbued with the bright flavors of Thailand. Bold, verdant, spicy and out-of-the-ordinary flavors are what make this Tom Kha Gai so deliciously memorable. Although you should be able to find all the ingredients we call for in our version of Tom Kha Gai at your neighborhood market, we encourage you to visit an Asian specialty store in your area and consider seeking out truly authentic Thai ingredients. The soup will be delicious either way, but it's so fun to cook with new ingredients! Have fun playing around with the flavors and be adventurous.

Kaffir lime leaves: take it to the next level by subbing kaffir lime leaves for the lime zest. You’ll typically find them dried, and you use them the same way you would bay leaves—add them to the broth as it simmers, and remove them before serving.

Thai basil: swap Thai basil for Italian sweet basil (which is more commonly found in supermarkets). Spicier and bolder, it will add an herbaceous punch. 

Galangal root: galangal—which looks a lot like ginger—can be used in place of (you guessed it) ginger to give this creamy coconut chicken soup a deeply authentic, complex tang. That elusive, slightly sharp, sour-ish zippy flavor that Thai dishes often have comes—in part—from galangal. Simply slice it into coins—just as we tell you to do with the ginger—and let it work its pungent magic on your homemade Tom Kha Gai. 

Lemongrass: adding a uniquely citrusy note to our creamy Thai coconut chicken soup, this stalk-y grass is becoming more and more easy to find—your local supermarket may even have it in the produce section! To prep your lemongrass, just snip off the spindle-y top and base, then crush the stalk with the side of your knife to release its fragrant oils. Slice the lemongrass into 1- or 2-inch pieces and add to your broth. Although it’s edible, lemongrass stalks can tough, so you may want to remove them before tucking into your Tom Kha Gai. 

Fish sauce: or nam pla in Thai, fish sauce is a key component to this Thai coconut chicken soup. Made from salted, fermented fish, it’s powerfully savory and a pillar of Thai cuisine. A little goes a long way, so one small bottle will last you a long time.

How Do You Make this Thai Coconut Soup?

This TMP version of Tom Kha Gai is the result of many years of trial and error, and is the closest I have come to anything as rich and beautifully balanced as the soup I fell in love with so long ago. It's simple to make, complex in flavor, light and soothing, yet punchy, exotic, but still, somehow, not intimidating to those with sensitive palates. 

Track down your nearest Asian market and make an adventure out of tracking down the ingredients mentioned above! Yes, you can totally make this soup without making a special trip, but they make it extra special. 

Prep your ingredients: Chop, grate, squeeze, measure. Our biggest tip? Slicing your chicken when it’s slightly frozen allows you to easily get nice thin pieces, which is ideal for a soup like this. 

20 Minutes, Start-to-Finish: 

Once your prep is finished, the soup will come together super-fast! Bring your broth and coconut milk (full-fat guarantees a deliciously creamy soup, but you could use light coconut milk if you prefer) to a boil along with some aromatics, toss in the remaining ingredients and let a nice little simmer do the rest. Homemade Tom Kha Gai on the table—faster than delivery for sure, and maybe even better (if we do say so ourselves). 

Bonus: This Thai coconut chicken soup can easily be tweaked to comply with a host of special dietary concerns to create a dish that literally everyone you know can enjoy. 

Coconut Chicken Soup

Soup is one of those meals that easily feeds a crowd. It’s an amazing gesture of hospitality to invite some friends over, pull out a stack of bowls and spoons and just enjoy one another’s company over a simple supper. If a large crowd isn't in the cards for the night you serve this Tom Kha Gai, the resulting leftovers will provide for many delicious and soothing lunches or dinners in the days to follow (in my husband’s words “multiple nights of leftover greatness”).

At once complex and simple, pungent, creamy, filling, spicy—our Tom Kha Gai embodies comfort in a bowl. I even have a friend who swears it the cures the common cold (no promises, of course, but it works for her!). So go ahead, step out of your comfort zone and have some fun playing with the flavors of this soup. You'll thank us later.

Coconut Chicken Soup
Coconut Chicken Soup
Coconut Chicken Soup

Still Craving Thai? 

Our Thai chicken pizza is anything but authentic, and absolutely, 100% hits the spot every time. Or, for something a bit lighter, these crunchy, healthy larb lettuce cups are a weeknight favorite. 

And, if you make our Tom Kha Gai, we’d love to hear about it! Be sure to snap a photo, add it to your Instagram feed or stories and tag us @themodernproper and #themodernproper if you do. Also, feel free to leave a comment on the post and tell your friends where you discovered the recipe. 

Coconut Chicken Soup

Coconut Chicken Soup (Tom Kha Gai)

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 cups chicken stock
1 (13.5 oz) can coconut milk
8 thin slices of fresh ginger or galanga
2 lemon grass stalks, tough outer portion removed, using only the tender portion, chopped into 2 inch pieces and slightly crushed with the back of a knife
1/2 medium sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 lb chicken breast, very thinly sliced (this can be easily accomplished if chicken is slightly frozen)
1/2 lb crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced
5 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp red curry paste
1/2 tsp salt
2-3 limes (should equal 1/2 cup or so juiced)
1 tbsp grated lime zest
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
chili paste (optional)
cooked white rice (optional)

Method

  1. In a large soup pot combine the chicken stock, coconut milk, ginger, lemongrass, curry paste, sugar and onion and bring to a boil.
  2. Add the chicken, mushrooms and fish sauce. Reduce the heat to medium, and simmer until the chicken is white and firm, about 4 minutes.
  3. Add the salt, lime juice, lime zest and basil and heat to just below boiling, about 3 minutes.
  4. Serve soup with white rice, additional basil and chili paste if desired.